The Official Columnist of NASCAR · Kurt Smith · Saturday February 16, 2008
Kurt Smith is currently celebrating on his honeymoon in South Florida with his beautiful new wife Suzanne, but since he always has a backlog of opinions (remember, they're like sphincters!), he gave us his take on the possibility of NASCAR raising the minimum age limit. Enjoy!
Kyle Busch humorously apologized indirectly to Joey Logano and Marc Davis for possibly being responsible for making NASCAR believe that Cup drivers need to be at least 21.
In an article at That’s Racin’ some time ago, Kyle was quoted as saying that "â€¦I think a lot of this might have to do with just the off-track stuff, the way – I don’t know if I brought it on, which is going to be the Kyle Busch rule again for others again, I’m sorry."
Most of us know what he means. Certainly his name enters the minds of many fans when NASCAR talks about ensuring that drivers reach a certain level of maturity before racing at the Cup level. Not because Kyle is immature necessarily, but that is the public perception of him.
If Kyle Busch is green in the ways of the world, it doesn't show on the racetrack. In just his ninth Cup raceâ€”while still sporting peach fuzzâ€”Kyle finished second at Las Vegas. Shortly after turning 20, he scored his first win at Fontana. Before he turned 21, the minimum age that NASCAR is considering, Kyle had 2 wins, 11 Top 5s and 17 Top 10s.
Certainly, Kyle's skill behind the wheel should not raise a concern about whether a driver under 21 can handle the Cup series. If anything, Kyle's success on the track makes an argument against raising the minimum age. So what's the problem?
The easy answer for those critical of NASCAR is that Kyle is being blamed for breaking the First Commandment of the France Family: Thou Shalt Not Criticize NASCAR.
Mike Helton has said that NASCAR is looking at "the new drivers that are coming along and we’re also looking at how they mature and how they can handle the pressures of racing in our top division." Read that statement carefully, especially the part about "how they mature". The general consensus about Kyle Busch among race fans is that he sometimes opens his mouth when he shouldn't, but not many dispute his ability to handle a racecar.
Kyle gave signs of being outspoken while in victory lane at California, when he took Roush Racing to task for suspending his brother Kurt. That was an emotional outburst that wasn't well thought out and could certainly be attributed to youth. But it was hardly the first time anyone said anything spiteful in victory lane. It wasn't any more reactionary than "This is for all the Johnson haters."
Then, after Kyle won the historic first race with the Car of Tomorrow in Bristol, he had those memorable words of praise for the new designâ€¦
We all remember what he said. But even if his victory lane tirade came from someone lacking in maturity and self-control, which is fair to suggest, is that a reason to raise the minimum age of Cup drivers? If you remember what Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and quite a few others had been saying, Busch was simply echoing the sentiment of most of the drivers at the time.
It's unclear exactly what NASCAR's motivation is here, but one certainly hopes it isn't bruised egos in R&D. It would be one thing if Kyle Busch were wrecking his own and others' cars every week. But he wasn'tâ€¦in fact, he was winning.
So it appears that NASCAR may just have a problem with Busch's occasionally brash mouth. If you ask most NASCAR fans, the sport has bigger things to worry about.
I don't want to be on record necessarily opposing a minimum age of 21 to race in Cup. There are some good reasons for it, but there are other steps NASCAR could and should be taking to mature drivers properly, especially in the name of safety. NASCAR can't make the argument that they want drivers to gain more experience in the minor leagues before moving on to Cup, even though that's a valid and justifiable argument. Stay with me, I'll explain.
With all of the current Nationwidewhacking going on, there isn't much opportunity for young drivers to even get seat time, and that isn't likely to change. The hard reality is that the sponsors rule. A driver would have to be a superstar on the level of Joey Loganoâ€¦i.e. already have some name recognitionâ€¦before he would even have a chance at a full-time Nationwide ride with a willing corporation footing the bills.
Beyond that, if NASCAR believed the more-experience-before-Cup argument, then it might be a requirement for Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish, and Dario Franchitti to spend a year or two in the Nationwide Series. Those four, the top rookies in Cup this season, have started in a grand total of exactly 18 Nationwide races between them. Only Hornish has started in more than four.
Most of us remember when Jacques Villeneuve was approved for his first Cup start at no less dangerous a place than Talladega. And we remember the amply voiced concern of many of the participants in the race. It turned out ok, but that sort of thing should worry drivers more than a hotshot 19-year-old who has won in the Nationwide Series.
The truth is that drivers probably should have at least a year of minor league experience before moving to the Cup level. That was probably Gibbs' plan for Joey Logano. But if a mandatory year in Nationwide before moving to Cup isn't even remotely close to being enforced, then why an age limit? There are drivers in their 30s and 40s that cause more problems on the track on Sunday than Kyle Busch ever did.
In response to Joe Gibbs' concern regarding the sponsorship trouble that they would have should Logano's climb to Cup be delayed, NASCAR has stated that any rule change would be phased in. But what about the superstar that is coming down the road? At a time when NASCAR's attendance and ratings aren't what they should be, they shouldn't be hindering the progress of someone who can bring in new fans, so long as he (or she) proves himself in a year of driving with fenders.
Besides, it might make watching the Nationwide Series worthwhile again.
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